Alan Moore’s Lost Stan Lee Essay
In 1983 comic book writer Alan Moore (Watchmen) wrote a great essay on Stan Lee called, "Blinded By The Hype: An Affectionate Character Assassination". The essay breaks down how Lee is both a hero and a villain in the world of comics.
Moore builds Lee up by saying things like, "It was my first taste of Stan Lee’s writing and I was hooked." And then tears him down with comments like, "Oh sure, you get 'Stan Lee presents…' at the top of every splash page and the odd guest-spot of embarrassing geriatric gibberings from the man himself turning up in the Bullpen Bulletin pages from time to time, but I have my doubts as to whether Mr. Lee has actually bothered to read a Marvel comic since sometime during the early seventies."
This is a must read for any fan of Lee's work. Read over the article below and let us know what you think about Moore's thoughts on the Marvel Comics legend!
I doubt that any of you sitting out there reading this are totally unfamiliar with the name Stan Lee…unless, of course, you happen to be one of those unfortunates who have spent their childhoods in a laundry hamper. Should this be the case, then please allow me to fill you in on the necessary details.
Stan Lee is the name of the flawed genius responsible for the Marvel Comics empire in its entirety. Without Stan Lee, you would not be reading this. Without Stan Lee there would have been no Fantastic Four, no X Men, no Hulk, no Thor, no nothing. Without Stan Lee there quite probably would have been no Conan movie and it is almost certain the comic book industry as a whole would be vastly different, assuming that it existed at all.
On the other hand, without Stan Lee you wouldn’t have to sit through such marrow-chilling dreck as the Spider-Man television show. I suppose it’s a case of having to take the rough with the smooth.
My long-distance acquaintance with this gentleman goes back some twenty years to the fateful day when, laid up with one of those loathsome childhood, I had sent my mother out to buy me my weekly comics ration. The particular comic I had been after was an issue of DC’s Blackhawk.
Knowing, however, that my maternal parent would be unlikely to remember anything as demanding as a two-syllable word like Blackhawk, I played it safe and told her that the comic I wanted featured a bunch fo people who all wore blue uniforms.
What turned up was Fantastic Four number three. Imagine my surprise.
My mother, of course, apologised profusely. For this reason I let her off with a mild cuffing and didn’t loose the dobermans upon her, as was my usual practice. Some two hours later, after I’d finished reading FF no.3 for something like the eighth time, I realised that she had in fact done me a tremendous service. This comic was utterly stark raving foaming-at-the-mouth stupendous!
Now, I was not the sort of child who regularly went in for lavish displays of gratitude but I recall that evening I threw mother an extra lump of raw meat and agreed to consider putting a couple of extra links in her chain…
At this point I should perhaps explain exactly what it was that devastated me about the third issue of the Fantastic Four. After all, when the issue first appeared, most of you readers were just a bunch of random genes and chromosomes wandering around looking for somebody to happen to. On top of that, you have grown up in a world where you have something in the region of forty different super-hero titles to chose from each month.
I doubt you can imagine the sheer impact that single comic possessed back there in the comic-starved wastelands of 1961 or whenever it was. Especially to someone whose only exposure to the super hero had been the clear-cut and clean-living square-jawed heroes featured in DC comics at the time. The most immediately noticeable thing was the sheer strangeness of Jack Kirby’s art. It had a craggy, textured quality that looked almost unpleasant to eyes that had become used to the graceful figures of Carmine Infantino or the smooth inking of Murphy Anderson. That said, it was a taste which quickly grew upon me.
Only a few short months later I couldn’t really look at Infantino or Kane or Swan or any of the other DC artists of that period without feeling that there was something missing… a lack of grittiness or something. Like I say, the art was very, very strange. Those of you whose only exposure to Kirby’s artwork has been something like ‘The Eternals’ can’t begin to imagine how strange.
The writing, however, was stranger. It wasn’t the plot that was so exceptional… as I recall the plot featured a second rate villain called the Miracle man who had the power to create illusions. He attacked the Fantastic Four, beat them, they regrouped, beat him, end of story. Nothing special.
What was special was the characterization…the way the characters talked, thought and behaved. I mean, think about it for a moment…there was a standard noble scientist type called Reed Richards who was given to making long-winded and pretentious proclamations on everything from Epsilon radiation to Universal Love.
There was his wimpy and fainthearted girlfriend, Susan Storm, who always looked as if she’d be much happier curled up in an armchair with a bottle of valium and the latest issue of Vogue rather than being captured by the Mole Man or someone of that ilk.
There was her skinny, teenaged brother Johnny who was brash, loudmouthed and not a little obnoxious, the sort of person who looked like he’d have less trouble picking up an articulated lorry than he would have picking up a steady girlfriend.
And last, but certainly not least, there was Ben Grimm, the Thing.
In those early days, the Thing was nothing at all like your cuddly, likeable ‘Orange Teddy-bear’ of later years. In those days he was portrayed as being something like a manic-depressive Hulk with a constant migraine headache, forever sprouting dialogue along the liens of “Bah! Out of my way, puny mortal!” and smashing up cars and buildings with a gusto that would leave the average soccer hooligan gaping with admiration.
On more than one occasion he came dangerously close to actually murdering the Human Torch while in a bad mood and in general you had the impression that he was always on the verge of turning into a fully fledged villain and quitting the Fantastic Four for good.
To someone who had cut his teeth upon the sanitised niceness of the Justice League of America, this was heady stuff indeed. I mean, in DC comics, if Superman ever said anything remotely nasty to Batman or Wonder Woman you knew that he was either suffering from the unpredictable effects of Red Kryptonite or was having his mind controlled by Lex Luther’s latest ‘Brain-Ray’.
With Ben Grimm, you knew that he was quite likely to pull someone’s arms and legs off one at a time for no better reason than that his corn-flakes had gone all soggy before he got round to eating them that morning.
There was a memorable scene in that selfsame issue three which featured the Invisible Girl proudly presenting her team-mates with some new costumes which she had designed (Up until that point, the Fantastic Four had dressed in ordinary street clothes.)
The Thing’s Costume was a skintight blue affair complete with black boots and a blue helmet which did it’s best to conceal his hideous, lumpy orange face. By the end of the issue he had ripped it to pieces in a fit of temper and stamped off wearing only the black bootees and the modified Y-Fronts which we know and love today.
In the same time, the Human Torch threw a screaming temper tantrum that would have looked better on a five-year old and decided to leave the Fantastic Four forever. With all this going on, you can see why I was less than interested by the Miracle Man and his horde of illusory monsters.
It was my first taste of Stan Lee’s writing and I was hooked.
Subsequent issues were no let down. In issue four the Sub Mariner made his first appearance since the 1950’s, turning up in the guise of a down and out amnesiac tramp who was quietly rotting away in a Bowery flophouse until said establishment was visited by the Human Torch who was still on the run from his three teammates.
In what, to me, remains one of the most electrifying comic scenes ever, an awestruck Johnny Storm ignites one finger using his flame-power and begins to shave away the tramp’s shaggy mane of hair and tangled beard to reveal the unearthly triangular face and elegant curving eyebrows of Prince Namor, the legendary Sub Mariner.
And on and on it went. And not only within the pages of the Fantastic Four: during this period Lee was expanding the whole Marvel line-up, revamping the flagging mystery titles to include a constantly increasing menagerie super-humans, and, most remarkably, writing them all himself. Thor, Ant Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Avengers… bearing in mind that the majority of these titles were monthlies, perhaps you’d like to sit down with a pencil and paper and work out just how many pages of script Stan the Man was having to turn out in any given month in addition to being the managing editor of a rapidly snowballing comic-book empire.
I mean, I myself have been known to pen a page or two in my time, but the thought of a workload like the that makes me tremble uncontrollably and give voice to funny squeaking noises. The man must have had eight pints of black coffee where most of us have blood.
Naturally, not all the scripts were that good, although if anyone had suggested that to me at the time I would have ripped their spine out and fed it to them an inch at a time.
Like most readers of that period I had become totally brainwashed by the sheer bellowing overkill of the Marvel publicity machine. If a cover-blurb in formed me that Millie the Model meets The Rawhide Kid was “The Greatest Action Epic of All Time” then by God, so it was and never mind about War and Peace, The Bible, King Solomon’s Mines and Moby Dick. As far as I was concerned, if it wasn’t written by Stan Lee it wasn’t in the running.
Probably the most remarkable thing that Stan Lee achieved was the way in which he managed to hold on to his audience long after they had grown beyond the age range usually associated with comic book readers of that period. He did this by constant application of change, modification and development.
No comic book was allowed to remain static for long. Iron Man traded in his gunmetal-grey juggernaut of a costume for the sleek red and gold affair that was gradually turned into the costume we know today. The Hulk left the Avengers, never to return. A Howling Commando got killed from time to time. You can say what you like about the early Marvel universe, but it sure as hell wasn’t boring.
As the sixties wore on, Lee’s writing began to mirror the changes that were taking place in the society about him. The gritty, streetwise realism slowly gave way to a sense of adventure and wonder on a grand and cosmic scale, just as thousands of middle class American kids were donning kaftans, growing their hair and setting out for San Francisco in search of cosmic adventures of their own.
To many, this ‘visionary’ period of Lee’s writing stands as his finest work. Personally, although it knocked me for a loop at the time, I can see with hindsight that in many ways it spelled the beginning of the end. That said, while it lasted it was probably the most fun you could have without risking imprisonment.
The Fantastic Four encountered, in swift succession, the stunning planet-eater known as Galactus, the soulful and simonized Silver Surfer, the Black Panther’s technological utopia set in the heart of the African jungles, the Inhumans, the Watcher and a vast plethora of equally brain-numbing individuals.
Thor encountered the Rigellian colonizers and more memorably, Ego the Living Planet. I’ll never forget turning the last page of that particular issue of Journey into Mystery to be confronted by the full-page spectacle of a massive organic planet with the grafted-on face of a malign octogenarian.
Believe me, when people my age wax lyrical about the sense of wonder to be found in those old comics, that’s the sort of thing they’re talking about. It was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime utterly mind-roasting concept that made you wonder just how long Lee and his Bullpen buddies could keep up that sort of pace and style.
The answer was, sadly, not long.”
As Marvel began to grow into a bigger and bigger concern, Lee seemed to find most of his time taken up in the day to day editorial decisions implicit in such a large enterprise, and less and less time available for the actual writing.
Other writers began to appear. Some of them, like Roy Thomas, were very very competent indeed. Others were less so. The one thing that all of these newer writers had in common was that they had by and large cut their teeth upon the writing o f Stan Lee.
This was good in as much as it lent a pleasing continuity to the books. Roy Thomas following Stan Lee with a style very much like Lee’s own… but bad in that what we were getting was a kind of Stan-Lee-Once-Removed situation. It was a sort of watering down process.
Eventually, writers began to appear who had cut their teeth upon Roy Thomas and the original idea was diluted still further. Writers who had less idea about plotting and characterization than a common earthworm came to believe that all one needed to write a good solid Stan Lee type story was to have Dr Doom or Galactus turn up and the heroes to spend a couple of obligatory frames arguing amongst themselves.
But, through Lee’s genius for publicity, the Marvel Machine had gathered a certain momentum. Each successive cover boasted that this issue was destined to be “The Greatest Super Heroic Slugfest in the Mighty Marvel Age of Comics!” And, like the ninnies we were, believed it. After all, when had Stan ever lied to us?
No matter that the issue in question featured the same old mindless fight scenes that we’d been through a hundred times before. No matter that the characters had degenerated into shallow parodies of their former selves. We sent for our MMMS membership kits and erected fiery crosses in the gardens of people suspected of reading DC comics or Brand Ecch as our fearless leader suggested we to refer to his distinguished competition.
We were wild-eyed fanatics to rival the loopiest thugee cultist or member of the Manson family. We were True Believers.
The worst thing was that everything had ground to a halt. The books had stopped developing. If you take a look at a current Spider-Man comic, you’ll find that he’s maybe twenty years old, he worries a lot about whats right and what’s wrong, and he has a lot of trouble with his girlfriends.
Do you know what Spider-Man was doing fifteen years ago? Well, he was about nineteen years old, he worried a lot about what was right and what was wrong and he had a lot of trouble with his girlfriends.
On the benign side, nearly everyone working in the medium today, especially those of us who are writers, owe Stan Lee a very great debt. I’d be the first to admit that any flair which my own writing might possess probably originates back on that Thursday afternoon when I was eight years old, sitting and boggling at the strange-looking comic that was far removed from Blackhawk as Mother Theresa is from Hugh Hefner. That’s a debt that I don’t take lightly, and if I wore a hat it would certainly be doffed to Mr. Lee for providing me with the inspiration that is currently helping to pay my rent.
Also, as I said in the opening paragraphs of this article, without the revitalising spark that Lee brought to the industry way back then, comics today would be vastly different and might not even exist at all.
A number of today’s most clearly Lee-influenced writers… Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman, Jim Shooter… would almost certainly not be with us. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends upon your opinion of their individual talents. Stan Lee has done a hell of a lot for the industry and there’s no getting away from it.
But it’s a thing that cuts both ways. I’ve often noticed that the most sparkling examples of the industry at the peak of it’s form seem to have an ultimately deleterious effect upon the medium as a whole. As a for instance, the original E.C. Mad comic, undeniably brilliant in it’s own right, has doomed us to a situation where any new humour magazine that appears is almost forced by law to have a title associated with mental illness (Cracked, Sick, Crazy, Frantic, panic, Madhouse, etc. etc.) and features a pale imitation of Mad’s stock in trade genre parodies without reflecting any of the wonderful drive and imagination of the original. The same is true for Stan Lee.
Stan Lee became a name that was synonymous with comic-book success. His competitors had either to copy what he was doing or go out of business. The largest of these competitors, DC comics, opted for the former course of action and today have a product which is largely interchangeable with that of their Marvel counterparts.
You see, somewhere along the line, one of the newer breed of Marvel editors… maybe it was Marv Wolfman, maybe it was someone else, had come up with one of those incredibly snappy sounding and utterly stupid little pieces of folk-wisdom that some editors seem to like pulling out of the hat from time to time.
This particular little gem went something as follows; “Readers don’t want change. Readers only want the illusion of change.” Like I said, it sounds perceptive and well-reasoned on first listening. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most specious and retarded theories that it has ever been my misfortune to come across.
Who says readers don’t want change? Did they do a survey or something? Why wasn’t I consulted?
If readers are that averse to change then how come Marvel ever got to be so popular in the first place, back when constant change and innovation was the order of the day? Frankly, it beats it beats the hell out of me.
Perhaps I could have a little more sympathy for pronouncements like this if there was some solid commercial reasoning behind them. If, for example, Marvel’s books suddenly started selling significantly more during the period when this “Let’s-Not-Rock-The-Boat” policy was introduced, then I might have reluctantly been forced to agree with it.
This is not the case. Marvel’s best selling title today is the X Men, or it was when I saw any figures. It sells something like 300,000 copies, and it is regarded as a staggering success.
Listen, in a country the size of America, 300,00 copies is absolutely pathetic. Back in the early fifties it was not unknown for even a comparatively minor-league publication like Lev Gleason’s original Daredevil (no relation) to clear six million copies every month. Even in the early days of the Marvel empire, any comic that was selling only 300,000 copies would have probably been cause for grave concern amongst those in charge of it’s production, and indeed it would have most likely been cancelled. These days, it’s the best we’ve got.
Now, I don’t want to cause too much alarm and despondency by talking about Marvel’s imminent downfall. Some of the recent developments over there in the home of the hamburger look very promising indeed and it looks as if it might just be possible to save the day at the last minute, the way it always happens in the comics. But, and it’s a big but, it’s been left awfully late. Maybe too late. We’ll have to wait and see.
As for Stan Lee, to read the man’s increasingly infrequent pronouncements you would assume that everything was brighter and better than it had ever been before. Gradually, however, it became clear that Stan Lee was no longer even marginally associated with the line of comics that had made him a very rich man. Oh sure, you get “Stan Lee presents…” at the top of every splash page and the odd guest-spot of embarrassing geriatric gibberings from the man himself turning up in the Bullpen Bulletin pages from time to time, but I have my doubts as to whether Mr. Lee has actually bothered to read a Marvel comic since sometime during the early seventies. As far as I know he occupies some sort of executive position out on the sunny west coast of America and is thoroughly immersed in a world of gold ingots and grey chest-hairs. In short, he’s out of the picture.
So, finally getting around the initial purpose of this article, what sort of legacy has he left behind? In comic book history, is he a Hero or a Villain?
Well, to borrow a concept that Mr. Lee himself made popular during the early sixties, he’s a Hero/Villain, just like Submariner or Hawkeye. He has had an influence upon the medium which is as benign as it is poisonous.
In the Justice League, Green Arrow, and Hawkman argue together in a pale echo of the original Thing/Torch dust-ups of yesteryear. Firestorm is about twenty years old, has lots of teenage problems and trouble with his girlfriends. In effect we have two big companies who are both Marvel comics to all intents and purposes but merely have different names.
All the other companies of the mid sixties… Charlton, ACG, Tower and so on… opted not to follow Marvel’s lead and subsequently went bust, leaving the comic field populated solely by pale ghosts of Lee’s former glories.
Even the independent publishers that have recently sprung up seem largely unable to do anything more radical than tinker feebly with Lee’s basic formulas. Captain Victory is little more than The Eternals playing at the wrong speed and Ditko’s Missing Man would not have looked out of place as a sub-plot in Dr. Strange.
Oddly enough, it is imitating the superficial stylistics of Mr. Lee’s ‘Marvel Renaissance’, most of these imitators seem unable to recognize the single most important quality that he brought to the comic medium.
Stan Lee, in his heyday, did something wildly and radically different.
And as far as I’m concerned, his vacant throne will remain empty until we come up with someone who has the guts and imagination to do the same.